21 May 2007

Pedagogy, Part 2.

Now I've graded a number of essays in my time, and I've written a few as well. One thing that you always stress as a writing instructor is that you should back your assertions up with evidence; technically, we call that a "supporting argument."

Today, though, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Mike McConnell, Bush's "director of national intelligence," that contained absolutely not a shred of supporting argument for its assertion that the FISA law was outdated. Doesn't anyone read over the content of these opinion pieces just to see if they're credible (OK, the very existence of lunatics like Charles Krauthammer on editorial pages indicates a negative on that account, but...)? Leaving aside for the moment that the Washington Post continually opens its pages up to right wing shills without allowing for any sort of commensurate left wing rebuttal, we should at least expect the paper's editors to demand their pieces contain some argumentation.

But anyway, on to the McConnell dreck: McConnell begins his piece with an anecdote about the old timey days of computers, the 1970's, when computing power was much smaller, the Sovite Union was our biggest threat, and cell phones didn't abound. It also happens that during that time, FISA was written and enacted into law. In writing classes, we call this an introduction, and the introduction sets the stage for the rest of the piece: it sets the scene for the reader and explains the argument. A reasonable reader would expect that McConnell would go on to show how new technology makes the old law obsolete (especially since the title of the piece is "A Law Terrorism Outran").

Here's what you might call McConnell's thesis:

If we are to improve our ability to protect the country by gathering foreign intelligence, this law must be updated to reflect changes in technology and the ways our adversaries communicate with one another.
And given that McConnell has spent a few paragraphs telling us about the good old days of the Cold War and no internets and no cell-u-lar tel-e-phones, you'd expect this thesis would lead to a demonstration of how the law simply can't account for today's realities. And you'd finish the article still waiting for that demonstration, because McConnell fails to do anything other than assert his thesis in slightly varied wording throughout the rest of the piece.

Mr. McConnell's first "proof" of his thesis is a marvelous example of the old "bait and switch," because he's asserting one thing and arguing quite another:

To state the facts plainly: In a significant number of cases, our intelligence agencies must obtain a court order to monitor the communications of foreigners suspected of terrorist activity who are physically located in foreign countries. We are in this situation because the law simply has not kept pace with technology.
Umm...so the main complaint actually isn't that FISA can't account for today's communications; it's that you have to obtain court orders to perform surveillance. [If this were a student paper, the comment would run along these lines: "Your thesis indicates that technological advances make the law obsolete, but your support focuses on the legal procedures...change one or the other so they can work together."]

That, by the way, is the closest McConnell ever actually comes to arguing his point. Read the article yourself if you don't believe me. It's mainly repetitive assertions that "we must update the law" and appeals to pathos ("protect your children and grandchildren"). In other words, it's a bunch of icing with no cake.


Reya Mellicker said...

I wish 5% of Americans were as smart as you are. Even better if the percentage was 25%. If half the people in this country were as smart as you are, I would actually be proud to be an American. As it is, I'm mortified.

Momentary Academic said...

I think that people forget that sometimes you still need a good argument. :) Somehow, you never do.